Theories of campaign professionalisation
The shift of parties towards a more professional and marketing-based form of organising has been one of the most well-established and significant trends in Western party politics. This professionalisation is especially advanced in terms of electioneering, which is often referred to as the ‘Americanisation’ of politics, whereby the principles of mass marketing are applied to politics. Employment is made of commercial agencies and communications consultants, new technologies are used to communicate to voters as well as to listen to the wishes of the electorate, and parties are sold more than ever via their leadership rather than through appeals to ideology of political programme.
In New Zealand, the initial shift towards professionalised parties can be identified as beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, when National and Labour began responding to significant changes in the social structure. Also, new technologies arose that changed the basis of political communication and electioneering. From this point on the New Zealand parties began behaving less like traditional class-based mass parties, and instead displayed more of the characteristics described above.
The ‘catch-all party’
One of the first theorists to highlight this trend in the West was Otto Kirchheimer (1966), who argued that politicians now market their parties to the whole electorate, in a similar way to businesses selling products and services to consumers (Kirchheimer, 1966: p.192). Kirchheimer termed this new model the ‘catch-all party’, but the model of the modern party is generally now theorized in the party literature as the ‘electoral-professional party’.
Kirchheimer argued that modern parties increasingly attempt to attract votes from whatever social groups they can, and this has a highly significant effect on electoral competition, including policy offerings and campaign tactics and strategy. In contrast to the class-based mass parties that behaved almost as electoral pressure groups of specific social constituencies, the professionalised parties aim at more immediate success by appealing to a wider market of voters. They therefore formulate programmes which are not so strongly partisan or divisive, but which can claim to serve the interest of the whole electorate. Parties thus seek to follow the ‘logic of party competition’ rather than a ‘logic of constituency representation’ (Kitschelt, 1989).
In line with this, parties have moved from stressing comprehensive programmes to emphasising specific issues. The importance of leadership has also increased – with parties promoting the technical and managerial qualifications of their candidates and leaders (Maor, 1997: pp.106, 109). This form of party also made for politics based around individual political personalities – and even celebrity endorsements. In this new schema of party politics, elections revolve more than ever before around a choice between politicians rather than between policies or programmes.
Kirchheimer’s argued that in parallel with this ideological change, there has been an organisational shift of power away from party members towards the leadership and those with technical and managerial skills, leading to professionalisation and intensive campaigning. Leon Epstein (1967) believed the political implication of this was that modern commercial polling techniques, advertising methods, and public relations strategies began to dominate the arena of the electoral campaign at the expense of issues of ideology and doctrine.
The electoral-professional party
The political sociologist Angelo Panebianco (1988) added to the analysis of the professionalised party, concentrating more on these organizational shifts. He emphasized the reliance on professionals, the use of new forms of communication techniques. In this new arrangement, the traditional party office holders are displaced by professionals with both technical and political skills, which are of more use in the modern media and political environment. The function of parties has also been changing, with paid professionals replacing volunteer workers, because the new style of campaigning requires competent professional skills.
Panebianco drew attention to the decline in party membership, and the subsequent re-orientation of parties towards the state to finance their professionalisation. According to Panebianco, as a result of these trends, ideological competition between parties has declined in significance and party policies have become more malleable in the hands of party leaders and professionals. The measurement of public opinion by opinion researchers becomes a significant determinant of party direction.
A number of other theorists have looked at how the professionalisation of parties has contributed to electoral convergence. David Farrell and Paul Webb (2002) say that the way political parties now organise for elections makes them appear as ‘increasingly unprincipled, opportunistic power-seekers who will fail to offer voters clear or meaningful choices’ (Farrell and Webb, 2002: p.124). Expanding on Panebianco, they say that the professionalisation of party campaigning has meant that there has been a perceptible and critical shift in the marketing approaches of modern parties. Whereas the traditional election strategy was more about taking a predetermined ideology and attempting to sell it, the new marketing approach revolves around adjusting the product to suit the market. This shift from selling to marketing is partly to do with the increasingly sophisticated means of accumulating feedback and the desire to test opinion. Market research now encompasses many more techniques – in particular, more qualitative methods, including panel surveys, focus groups, and expert surveys.
Anthony Downs and the rational-choice model
This new professionalised model of party malleability is therefore more in line with Anthony Downs’ (1957) original rational-choice model of party competition whereby parties are seen to be ‘overwhelmingly preference-accommodating rather than preference-shaping’ (ibid: p.106). Downs’ argument saw political parties simply as followers, constantly altering their policies in order to please voters and so gain as many votes as possible. Instead of integrating themselves into society and attempting to reshape the political preferences of voters, such electoralist parties act as opportunistic followers of centrist political trends.
This theory views parties as pragmatic office-seeking organisations. Parties therefore alter the many facets of their parties (policy, image, etc) in order to maximise their share of total votes. Politicians act out of self-interest and Downs believed that parties compete for the political centre (converging in pursuit of the ‘median voter’) and largely take their traditional left- or right-wing supporters very much for granted.
The cartellisation of parties
Other more recent theories about ideological convergence seek to partially explain this trend in electoral conflict by drawing attention to the role that state funding of political parties is playing in making parties less dependent on society for their resources. Richard S Katz and Peter Mair (1995; 1997) have used their theory of ‘cartellisation’ to explain how modern professionalized parties collude to participate in the ‘spoils of the state’, gaining all sorts of resources to be used for political means and goals. The generous parliamentary resourcing of MPs means that their offices are in effect superseding the extra-parliamentary party organisation in electoral management.
Katz and Mair say that reliance on these spoils is making parties more aligned with the state than with the particular social constituencies that they traditionally represented. In a sense, by being freed up from the constraints and pressures of social classes and other constituencies, politicians are even more likely to act in the market-oriented way that Downs suggested.
The increasing reliance on financial resources instead of human resources is a key element of the professionalised model. Previously, the mass membership party could not afford to hire much professional labour and, therefore, offered members policy promises in exchange for their involvement (Maor, 1997: p.97). It is partly for this reason that such mass membership parties were marked by ideology. In contrast professionalized parties are generally more able to rely on paid experts, thereby avoiding the exchange relationship with the membership.
The power of professionals
The logical corollary of this professionalisation is the tendency towards the marginalisation of the membership. Politicians now hire the highly-skilled and expert to help them perform their political functions. These professionals can effectively and efficiently accomplish many of the campaigning and organisational tasks formerly performed by activists.
Political party professionals have extraordinary degrees of influence within the parties. This new elite of media specialists and other experts are now playing a major role in every element of the campaign – from deciding the campaign issues through their market research initiatives to organising media coverage.
Such parties are little more than collections of individual leaders that are not reliant on party members for resources, are largely unconnected from strong social constituencies, are increasingly regulated by the state rather than those involved in the party, and are highly reliant on professionals and finance-intensive campaign-techniques to increase the party vote.
One of the main reasons that parties need to professionalise is because their whole connection with society has changed and thus they need expertise in order to create new ways of linking with voters. The breakdown of traditional voting patterns – party-class relations in particular in New Zealand – has meant that just as parties have had to move towards professionalisation to gain votes, they have had to move towards a media-centred form of politics and communication as a means of organising support in an increasingly volatile and atomised electorate
A whole host of trends makes for a difficult campaigning environment: old allegiances have broken down; traditional party ideologies have become confused, new and minor parties now threaten the more established ones, young people do not vote with their parents, and voter turn-out has dropped. The rules of the game have thus changed, and parties can no longer rely on established methods and linkages to communicate with voters and win their support. In this environment the parties have sought to employ professionals to utilise superior organisational and communications skills to connect with an increasingly volatile electorate.
Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008, edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig
Published by Pearson Education, 2009.
More information here.
Table Of Contents
1. Introduction: Mediated Politics - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward, Chris Rudd
2. Party Strategy and the 2008 Election - Bryce Edwards
3. The Election Campaign on Television News - Margie Comrie
4. Leaders’ Debates and News Media Interviews - Geoffrey Craig
5. ‘Vote for me’: Political Advertising - Claire Robinson
6. Newspaper Coverage - Chris Rudd and Janine Hayward
7. The Maori Party and Newspaper Coverage - Ann Sullivan
8. Online Media - Peter John Chen
9. Conclusion: Don’t shoot the messenger? - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd